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Littleton staple approaching 30 years

Jean, left, and Jim McKenna, long-time owners of the Coffee Pot Restaurant in Littleton and familiar faces throughout the entire North Country area. Jeff Woodburn. (click for larger version)
August 26, 2009
LITTLETON—Local restaurants may be the region's most battered victims of this recession, but one little Main Street breakfast and lunch eatery keeps chugging along. Next March, Jim and Jean McKenna's Coffee Pot Restaurant on Littleton's Main Street will celebrate 30 years in business.

When asked what is the secret of their success and longevity, Jim responded, pointing to his wife, Jean, "her," although the restaurant was Jim's brain child and enterprise that he opened in 1980 and operated for several months before he met, married and became business partners with Jean.

The key, Jean added is "greeting people by looking them in the eye" and being attentive to their needs, which includes providing good food and quality service. She also added that frugality helps, "we do our own repairs."

The couple acknowledged that these are tough times, especially with the disruption caused by the reconstruction of Littleton's Main Street, but Jim remembers tougher times. "Nineteen-eighty-two was bad," he said, "and a couple years in the early 90s."

In 1980, Jim, then a mechanic in Whitman, Ma., was itching for a change, and a small donut shop on Littleton's then tired, tattered Main Street filled the bill. They remembered fondly those early days and note that they charged just 35 cents for a cup of coffee.

During those years, Jim ran the back of the house—cooking and Jean in the front—waiting on customers. This was before the commercial boom and the growth of box retailers and fast food and quick service franchise restaurants in Littleton. "McDonald's was here that was it," Jim said. "It was such a treat back then" to go to McDonald's, Jean added, but that has changed. Today, franchise restaurants are everywhere and far outnumber locally owned restaurants. "People are so sophisticated (today) when it comes to food," Jean said and that seems to contribute to their appeal. The menu promotes their long history, their homemade food and that their eggs come from Monroe-based organic, free-range poultry farm, Pete and Gerry's.

For a while in the early 1990s, the McKenna's expanded, opening another Coffee Pot in Holderness, 45-minutes south of Littleton and further from their home in Monroe. They took their show on the road leaving the Littleton operation in the hands of hired manager. While they enjoyed the experience and developed a decent business, they sold it after nearly three years. "It was fun," Jean said, "but too much work."

One of the most rewarding aspects of their longevity is watching many of their young former employees grow to adulthood and now many of them have their own children. Conversely, this has also been the toughest aspect of the current operation. The hardest thing is hiring and training people—both which Jean said "cost time and money."

They've also noticed a decline in the work ethic of young people over the years.

In 1992, the Coffee Pot took a bold and risky move by becoming a non-smoking restaurant. The reason was very personal—Jim, a smoker, had been diagnosed with lung cancer, while Jean, a competitive athlete, who did not smoke, had long been exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke at the restaurant, and became a strict enforcer of their new rule.

They admitted that the move cost them business, but in the end the move was prophetic. In 2007, 15 years later the New Hampshire legislature passed and Gov. John Lynch signed a bill prohibiting smoking in restaurants, cocktail lounges and other public places.

As the McKenna's approach their third decade in business, they seem reluctant to slow down. Jean, who after all regularly wakes at 3 a.m. to open the restaurant by 6:30 a.m., has no immediate plans to retire.

When pushed, she responded, "Maybe at 65." By looking at her that seems a long way off.

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